My 3-year-old son spent the majority of his weekend sitting at the kitchen table, using a pair of blunt, plastic scissors to cut up piles and piles of old mail that I had finally gone through and determined to be shred-worthy. He called it “making trail mix” and he was more proud of that pile of small squares than he was of any of the artwork he brings home from daycare.

A common misconception is that all the cute construction paper animals and handprint-and-footprint art that is created at daycare fulfills their children’s natural need to be creative.  And a common misconception among child care providers is that these adorable, provider-led projects are treated as a sort of “Receipt for child care” (Lisa Murphy, M. Ed., Ooey Gooey).  I’d like to take a few minutes and really dig in to some of the documented findings regarding Product vs. Process Art and the importance of finding the right mix for your

Children, by nature, live in the moment and find value in doing and making. Children have a natural tendency to create. The best part of an art project is the time that they spend creating their masterpiece. I’ll never forget watching my 5-year-old work every afternoon for days on a “weather” poster for Kindergarten. I helped only in cutting out the cloud outline, or suggesting ways for him to accomplish his vision for the weather sections that he wanted to represent. Once the poster had been graded and displayed and was sent back home, my son took it outside and threw it away. I asked him why, after all his hard work; he wanted to just throw it away. He looked kind of confused and said, “It’s time to try to make something else now, Mom.”

Letting children explore their creativity by providing them with tools (finger-paint, crayons, scissors, paper and most importantly, time) allows learning to occur through the process. Sensory exploration provides experiences that offer a child the chance to experiment, create, and build which strengthens a child’s ability to think and make decisions, and in turn, make sense of the world around them (Kathy Hardy, M.Ed., Children’s Art: It’s the Process, Not the Product that Counts).

The process of creating is a wonderful precursor for literacy. For example, scribbling sets the foundation for writing. Process art can also help to give a child (who does not have the vocabulary to always express complex or new emotions) the chance to share how they are feeling. Using the examples of the giraffe projects below, which example gives you a greater glimpse into the mind of your child?Process Art

So what about all of the Pinterest projects and the canvas-printed hand art that is made for Mother’s Day and other holidays? Do these products not have value? Time spent with children creating product art also encourages bonding and interaction, thus it has value. Asking a child what color they want to paint their hand for the project or explaining what you are doing and having them involved in the process is a great way to create value for the child. Just remember, typically, this interaction has little to do with creativity on the child’s part, so it would be suitable to provide other creative outlets. Don’t be surprised if your child’s favorite project is the one that looks like a mess! They aren’t seeing the finished project, they are remembering the experience of creating it.

Start small and explore how the children in your life find joy in process art. Talk to your child care provider about the creative options that they offer in their programs. Appreciate the freedom that they give your child to explore and learn. If a child comes running up to show you their artistic creation, take time to look and appreciate what they have created. And… if you have no idea what you’re looking at? That’s process art!